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September 10, 1898
The doorbell buzzed, causing both women to pause in mid-argument. Eliza Lowe glanced up the wide, black marble hallway, to where the outline of a man was visible through the door's frosted glass. She glowered at her aunt. "That's him, isn't it?"
"Eliza, please listen to reason. A young lady of your class cannot travel West alone. It's unseemly, not to mention that traveling with such an enormous amount of money is dangerous. And Mr. Brogan will make a perfectly wonderful escort for you."
"Mr. Brogan is a Pinkerton, Auntie Vi, not an escort."
Short, plump, and white-haired, Violet Lowe wrung her hands, her soft features puckering in distress. "Yes, but he's the best Pinkerton the agency has. Mr. Riley, the assistant chief of the agency, assured me that Mr. Brogan was just the man for your purposes."
The bell sounded again, more insistent this time. Violet's gaze darted nervously toward the door. "We should answer that, Eliza."
"Please, Auntie Vi," Eliza continued, ignoring the buzz, "let me do this myself."
"Eliza, child," her aunt said in exasperation, "why must you be so headstrong? Your sister Mariah wouldn't go traipsing off alone."
"I won't be traipsing, I'm not a child, and I'm most definitely not Mariah: she's much too serious-minded. But I am nearly as smart as she is, though no one believes it."
"Eliza, if you persist on seeing this plan through --"
"Youknow I must."
"-- then, as your legal guardian, I insist you have a proper escort."
Eliza was growing desperate. "Proper? Auntie Vi, I've seen these Pinkerton men skulking around town -- burly, aging bullies with thick mustaches, scraggly sideburns, dusty clothing, and wads of tobacco in their cheeks. Hardly proper escorts."
"Meet Mr. Brogan, Eliza. That's all I ask."
The doorbell buzzed three times in succession.
Eliza huffed in annoyance. "Very well. I'll meet him. But that's all I'm agreeing to do." She marched up the hallway, muttering under her breath. A Pinkerton! She threw a quick glance at the tall case clock against one wall. "It's two o'clock, Auntie Vi. I have exactly one half hour to talk to this Pinkerton."
She flung open the door and stared straight into the lapels of a man's dusty brown suit coat.
A deep voice above her said, "One half hour will be sufficient."
Eliza tilted her head up, her mouth falling open in surprise. Ye gods! He was handsome.
His shrewd, sage-green gaze assessed her, moving slowly from the hem of her blue silk dress to her upswept black curls. "Case Brogan," he said, adding with a note of sarcasm, "the Pinkerton."
Eliza'sstunned gaze traveled the length of him. His clothes certainly fit the image, as did his stiff, expressionless features. But nothing else about him did -- not his age, or his proud bearing, or his wide, straight shoulders, or his neatly shaved face that smelled of bay rum, or the thick sandy-brown hair that was so clean it gleamed. Even his voice -- deep and resonant -- was a surprise. Unable to stop gaping, Eliza took a step back.
"Do come in, Mr. Brogan," Violet chirped happily, sweeping toward the door.
As Case moved into the spacious hall, Eliza backed up further and nearly tripped over one of her aunt's three Siamese cats, who'd come to investigate their guest. The cat let out an indignant howl and fled, drawing the hired detective's attention straight back to Eliza.
Her cheeks burned as she gave him a brief smile, smoothed her skirts, and tucked an escaped curl behind her ear.
"This is my niece, Eliza Lowe," Violet went on smoothly, pretending not to have noticed the near collision.
Eliza held out her hand and said coolly, "How do you do, Mr. Brogan?"
Case took her hand in his large, rough one. For such a stern-looking man, the warmth of his hand astonished her. "Miss Lowe."
His penetrating gaze held hers for a long moment, sending tingles of electricity all the way down to her toes. Was there a glimmer of interest in his eyes?
He turned to her aunt, took the woman's plump little hand, and pressed her knuckles to his lips. He certainly did not lack manners. "How are you today, Mrs. Lowe?"
"Wonderful, Mr. Brogan," Violet gushed. "Thank you for asking. I was just telling my niece about you..." She trailed off, no doubt figuring that Case had overheard their conversation through the door. "Why don't you come into the parlor? Mary has set out tea and cakes for us."
He glanced down at his clothing. "I don't want to soil your furniture. I walked quite a distance along the lake this morning."
Eliza gazed at him speculatively. "For exercise?"
One corner of his mouth twitched slightly, as if the thought amused him. "For my job."
"Land sakes, don't give it a thought," Violet said. "I've never seen such a dry, windy September."
As they chatted about the weather, Eliza briefly considered slipping out with what was left of her dignity, but Case swung back around and fixed her with his devastating gaze.
"After you, Miss Lowe."
Eliza drew herself up to queenly heights and swept regally past him. Seating herself on one of the twin rose damask sofas in front of the hearth, she daintily plucked a bite-sized, sugared rum cake from the tray and placed it on a dessert plate. Case took a seat on the opposite sofa.
"Tea, Mr. Brogan?" her aunt asked, hovering over the silver tray on the mahogany butler's table between the sofas.
He accepted a cup with thanks and sipped the brew without sugar. Eliza shuddered at the thought and dropped three cubes into her cup. Was there any way she could get rid of him? Her aunt was genuinely...Beloved Protector. Copyright � by Linda O'brien. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.